Progress Report: My Brightest Diamond
NAME: My Brightest Diamond
PROGRESS REPORT: Shara Worden opens up about her new album, All Things Will Unwind, the perils of being a working musician, and her new home in Detroit.
In addition to releasing two albums under the moniker of My Brightest Diamond, Shara Worden has played with lots of people you probably love — Sufjan Stevens, the Decemberists and yMusic, to name a few. In the three years since the release of A Thousand Shark’s Teeth in 2008, Worden has busied herself with a variety of projects, including a long stint of touring and the often time-consuming business of birthing a child. She also moved to Detroit and purchased an abandoned building to convert into a new home, a simultaneously frustrating and liberating process that would provide a fascinating influence her next batch of songs. The new My Brightest Diamond album — All Things Will Unwind — is released this week on Asthmatic Kitty. Given the general thoughtfulness of her music, it wasn’t surprising that Worden herself was a genuinely lovely person to spend a few minutes talking to on the phone. Her new album is great as well.
STEREOGUM:: I’ve been listening to the new record nonstop for the past few days and its really, really beautiful. Congratulations.
WORDEN: Thank you.
STEREOGUM: From what I understand, lots of things have happened to you since the last record you put out. What can you tell me about how this record came together?
WORDEN: Um, well I worked with the group yMusic—which was kind of the brainchild of Rob Moose, who has played violin on the first two of my Brightest Diamond albums. Strangely enough I met Rob from Craigslist when he was a wee lad coming out of college, and he’s just kind of blossomed and bloomed as an incredible musician. So it’s been amazing to walk with him, you know, for about eight years now that he and I have been making music together. So when he formed yMusic, they wanted people to write instrumental pieces for their group, specifically, so they asked me and Annie Clark from St. Vincent and some other folks to contribute things. I saw it as a real opportunity to learn from them, because they are literally some of the finest players in the world, as far as I’m concerned. I felt like I didn’t want to miss the chance to work with them for my new record. So I decided to write songs for them to play on that really focused on each of their personalities to try to feature them in some way. So, that was one of the goals of each of the songs, was like trying to figure out, ‘Okay, who can I put the spotlight on?’ That’s kind of how it started. I feel really indebted to them because I did the arrangements for the first two albums all on pen and paper.
WORDEN: And, it was so hard, and it took so long, and you know, you can’t hear it! That’s part of the reason why those records just took years and years. So they bought me the computer program Sibelius.
STEREOGUM: The music notation software?
WORDEN: Yeah, so I do all the notation in the computer now, and its just–it’s not even comparable how much faster it is. So, without them kind of saying to me, ‘Hey, Shara, we want to do this, and we’ll buy you the computer program to do it.’ You know, I wouldn’t be where I am. You know? So, I feel really indebted to them.
STEREOGUM: How long did the process of making your record take?
WORDEN: The album is 40 minutes of music, and I wrote 30 minutes of it. I had to write a song a day to keep on schedule. And then, so I started writing in mid-November. I tried to write a bunch of songs. And then I would arrange them after I had several of them, see which ones I liked. And, then I would arrange, and the arrangements would take me about two days apiece. And then, I’d go to rehearse with them, and then I’d have about three weeks to revise and write new songs. And then we’d play one more rehearsal and then we had a show three weeks after that.
WORDEN: So, that process, like, by having those rehearsals, it really, like, made such a big difference. I never had had that before. Because, the other records were made in a very different way.
STEREOGUM: That’s a crazy schedule, though. Was it nerve-wracking?
WORDEN: Yes, it was. That’s what happens, though, when you wait three years before making a record. You can’t do that pace all the time, but I just had been sitting on my creative well for three years.
STEREOGUM: Where were you?
WORDEN: It was in Detroit. And then I’d go to New York for the rehearsals and then go back home to Detroit.
STEREOGUM: Wow. So, how long did it take to record it?
WORDEN: That happened while I was in New York, and it was recorded and mixed in 21 days. So fast.
STEREOGUM: Wow, that is really fast.
WORDEN: Ideally, there would have been one more layer of time to process things, but time is money sometimes. You gotta just let it be what it is.
STEREOGUM: Three years is a pretty healthy gap between albums. Why do you think it took so long?
WORDEN: Well, I toured with the Decemberists for about a year and a half, I guess. And in that time I did so many collaborations. And honestly, you know, that’s part of making a living. You know, for me to take time off to write and to have that time to just be at home for weeks like that, you know, I haven’t been able to really just commit to that. Because, it’s a lot of time to not work.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, that’s a hard thing. I think sometimes people have a really distorted view of what most musicians really have to do to make a living.
WORDEN: Right. Especially now. There’s just no perspective.
STEREOGUM: Yeah. Well, had you always lived in Detroit, or did you move back there during that time?
WORDEN: I lived in New York for 9 years, and then I moved back to Detroit. Actually, I never lived in Detroit before, but I moved to Detroit two years ago.
STEREOGUM: Wow, so how do you like it?
WORDEN: It’s amazing. It’s really … shocking. And intense. Very, very, very intense place to live, to juxtapose yourself with some of the poorest people in America. You are confronted with joblessness and classism and racism in a whole new way.
STEREOGUM: Yeah. I can only imagine.
WORDEN: You’re in New York?
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I’m in Brooklyn.
WORDEN: Okay. New York is fascinating because it’s a global city, and it’s an internationally-minded city and there is the mash-up of people, you know, the classes are all riding the train together on a certain level. But even then, you still can be so insular, strangely enough, in New York.
WORDEN: And there was something about that that I just felt like, disconnected from the rest of the world in a weird way.
STEREOGUM: No, I totally understand that feeling. It’s really strange. I grew up in Oklahoma.
WORDEN: What city?
STEREOGUM: Rural Southwestern Oklahoma in a town called Hydro. A really tiny town.
WORDEN: Huh. My family lived in Sapulpa. Outside of Tulsa, for a while.
STEREOGUM: Oh yeah, not too far. Some of my friends from home were here this week, and we were talking about the characters that we knew growing up there. And, I really think that living in places — not that Detroit is like Oklahoma in any way — but, I still think the most profoundly eccentric and weirdest people I’ve ever known were in the Midwest. Because you could be. You could still find a place to live where you only had to pay two hundred dollars a month in rent. You could get by being a weirdo. You could live a really fringe lifestyle and still manage to get by. You can’t really do that in New York unless you’re maybe a homeless person, you know what I mean?
WORDEN: Yeah, yeah. Unless, you know, you’re like, living with 10 people in one apartment, like so many people have to do.
WORDEN: That’s not really our culture.
STEREOGUM: Yeah. So, I kind of miss that about it. I always have a fantasy thinking about Detroit, because there are all those stories about people who have moved there and sort of reclaimed these abandoned spaces, or have managed to go there and create these really amazing spots for themselves in these huge spaces. I always fantasize about that. And there’s the guy who does that website called Forgotten Detroit where he just photographs all the abandoned buildings there, which are so haunting and beautiful. That’s what I think of anytime someone mentions going to Detroit.
WORDEN: It is. It is that. But, what I’ve found in taking over — in buying one of those abandoned places myself — is that it’s a tremendous amount of work to rehab.
STEREOGUM: Oh yeah.
WORDEN: So yeah, those spaces are totally there, it just becomes about whether you have the resources and the time to make it happen, you know?
STEREOGUM: Well, did you have a community of people there?
WORDEN: Yeah. My best friend from high school lives on this block that was doing all organic, urban farming. And its five minutes from downtown. So, there’s bees, and everybody’s got a garden and a lot of artists, as well. A lot of socially minded artists.
STEREOGUM: Yeah. Well, that’s cool. That’s very cool.
WORDEN: Yeah, it’s a special community.
STEREOGUM: Did all of that sort of have a way of making its way onto the record?
WORDEN: Yeah, definitely. The song called “High Low Middle” and also the song “There’s a Rat” came after I heard a lecture about the Detroit race riots. A friend kind of just gave us a history lesson for an hour. We just sat around the table, and so that kind of helped me to understand the hurt and the wounds that are there and are so palpable. And, you just see the police — there are many, many police men and women that are doing the best they can — but, also, just know our justice system is really … there is so much racism, even in New York. We often don’t want to admit that its still happening. And, so “High Low Middle” is very much about myself becoming aware of being a person of privilege. Whether I perceive myself to be or not, I have to recognize that I am. It’s like a friend said to me, “It’s like the wind. When the wind is at your back, you don’t notice it, but when its in your face, you suddenly become aware of it”. And so, that opening line of when you’re privileged you don’t even know you’re privileged, but when you’re not you definitely know.
WORDEN: And then “There’s a Rat” is just about, a lot of different things, I guess. Foreclosures and stuff. Stories of white neighbors coming and attacking a new black neighbor. These things are kind of the perspective of a woman protecting her home from these invasions. So, there’s some of that, you know. Being a musician is a weird lifestyle, because in many ways, you live a kind of very high class existence — you stay in hotels, you have great food and great wine and nice places to stay, and at the same time, you have to work really hard. So, there’s a decadence about the lifestyle, and there’s also, a kind of poverty about it. You get home from all that and realize you have no money.
STEREOGUM: So many of my friends are musicians — and being someone who mostly writes about music, I do experience this weird kind of fantasy living, where I’ll be sent somewhere to write about something and I’ll be put up in a really nice hotel and get to do all these things for free … but at the same time I’m literally not getting paid.
STEREOGUM: Staying in a really beautiful place, thinking “Man, how am I going to pay my rent when I get back to New York?”
STEREOGUM: Can I afford to buy a nine-dollar sandwich in the airport, or not? It is such a weird thing. You recently had a child, yes?
WORDEN: Yeah, a year ago.
STEREOGUM: And, obviously, that changes things in crazy ways as well, especially if you’re a musician.
WORDEN: Yeah, in the same year, my grandmother died the day before she turned 100, and thankfully, there was some cross time so that the two of them had some good time together. So I think that all of these issues found their way in. The new album is not necessarily a concept record, but its like, having birth and death happen in my life in the same time span, and then, I think living a life of contrasts and living in a certain decadence and then also putting myself right next to real, significant poverty, and then the world at large. It was just about how we live in such a crazy time on so, so many levels, you know? In the last year, with all of the environmental things that have happened, with the earthquake, and all of these things, and the Nobel Peace prize winner not being able to go get his prize. There’s more slavery in the world than there’s ever been. And its like, I think then about trying to be a person who is trying to say, how do you find joy in these small moments and how do you just be present and enjoy your life and be thankful for your life or find peace or whatever it is when all of this crazy stuff is happening in the world? And, I think that the album is very much about “You know what, Shara? Get to work.” Like, what is my responsibility to the earth? “Reaching Through to the Other Side” is about the relationship of the veil between my son when I was pregnant and the veil between me and a loved person whose died. Like, what’s that relationship? And, here I am in this present moment alive, oh how glorious to struggle in time. And then the last song is sort of the same, its singing to my son, you know, “I love you, whether you be a king or clown or pauper” and then at the end, saying, “Even in my death, I’ll sing to you that you’re okay.” I think it’s like, all trying to have a sense of well, how do we live on a daily basis? It’s just, I think maybe all this crazy stuff was happening before, and we didn’t have smartphones to read the news? I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s that more is happening or that it’s just that I’m becoming aware of it? But, I do think this is a crazy time in history.
STEREOGUM: It is. My friend was saying one of the burdens of technology is the burden of having to know everything all the time. The world was always crazy and awful and scary, but now we’re confronted with a steady stream of that terrible information all day long courtesy of our electronic devices.
STEREOGUM: Like, you can’t really have one without the other. You can’t be connected to everybody all the time without also having the burden of having to be connected to everybody all the time.
WORDEN: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
STEREOGUM: It’s a hard thing to turn off. And maybe it’s not even possible to turn it off now, you know?
WORDEN: Yeah. Yeah. That’s really interesting.
STEREOGUM: What will the rest of this year, next year look like for you? Will you be touring a lot?
WORDEN: We’ve kind of decided not to do the different city every day kind of thing, because this record is very bizarre to tour. We did it last week with a three piece, with a Swiss army knife guy on keyboards and guitar, and drums and bass and me on the other stuff, and it worked that way. So, it could be tourable, but at the same time, I have more collaborations coming up in the next six months, and I would rather do some specific shows that are really intentional and special and then not wait forever to write another record.
WORDEN: So, the goal is to kind of focus on more specific shows, and see where things go from here. But I’m a bit booked for the next six months. Which is cool. But, yeah, its sort of not what I’ve done in the past by doing a different city every day and hopping in the van.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, well. The novelty of that wears off real quick. Especially when you have a child.
WORDEN: I mean, I was ready to do it. I’m rebellious enough to want to defy the notion that it can’t be done.
STEREOGUM: People do it all the time, you know.
WORDEN: Yeah, you just have to make it work and its not gonna look like a traditional thing, and you just have to make it work. It’s my life choice to serve music, and so you just have to make it work. In particular, if I would have made an easier record to tour, it might have been different.
STEREOGUM: You are familiar with the band Low, yes?
WORDEN: Oh yeah! They have a bunch of kids, right?
STEREOGUM: Yeah, they were saying, actually its easier when the kids are smaller, because then you can stick them in the carrier thing and they can’t really run away from you. It’s when they’re bigger that’s the problem.
STEREOGUM: When they can run in the opposite direction, then it’s like, a much harder thing. But, people do it all the time. I’m sure you’ll figure out a way to make it happen. Well, thanks so much for talking to me. It’s been really nice.
WORDEN: Yeah, it’s been lovely talking with you. I love “interviews,” quote unquote, where I walk away learning something. So, thank you for that.
STEREOGUM: I’ve talked to the most widely disparate group of artists in the past few days, which has been really great. So many cool conversations. So much to think about. Yesterday I talked to Jimmy Cliff which was amazing. Then a couple of days before that, I talked to Yoko Ono, and then a couple days before that, I talked to David Lynch. All of them have been really interesting.
WORDEN: I follow Yoko on Twitter, she’s so … I love her.
STEREOGUM: I asked her about her Twitter account. I told her I followed. She writes all of those crazy tweets herself.
WORDEN: Oh, I’m sure. Who else is going to tell you to walk through every door…
STEREOGUM: Record the sound of a lake freezing … that was one recent one. She said that Twitter is like telling a knock knock joke to the world, and sometimes they knock back, and sometimes the things they say are stupid, and sometimes the things that say back are amazing, but she feels like it’s having a conversation with the universe.
WORDEN: That’s beautiful.
Here’s a lovely video about All Things Will Unwind that explains what Worden has been up to in Detroit over the past few months: